The four Middle Eastern religions also share a belief in prophecy—the idea that certain individuals (prophets) have special access to God’s will for mankind, and can inform the rest of us what God wants us to do. The concept of prophecy was well established in ancient Near Eastern religions and is also known in many religious traditions the world over; however, since antiquity, in the religions of the Middle East, it has developed distinctive traits because of its linkage with the idea of monotheism. Zoroastrians consider their prophet to be Zoroaster (Zarathustra, Zardusht, d. perhaps 1000 BCE), who first taught his followers to sing the praises of the god Ahura Mazda and to live a moral life. Judaism, followed by Christianity and Islam, acknowledged a number of individuals as prophets whose teachings they considered to have been inspired by God. Islam views this series of prophetic figures as culminating in the person of Muhammad (d. 632 CE), to whom in their view the literal word of God was revealed in its most perfect form in a series of revelatory experiences. The Jewish prophets sometimes led their people by example (such as Abraham and Moses), sometimes by their preaching (such as Isaiah and Ezekiel), and foretold the coming of a messiah who would lead the children of Israel out of oppression (similar, perhaps, to the Zoroastrian Saoshyant or savior, born of a virgin). Christians embrace the concept of prophecy because they claim that their main figure, Jesus, was the very messiah foretold by the earlier Jewish prophets (understood by Christians, however, not only as deliverer from oppression, but from death itself). Christians also consider Jesus to have been a physical incarnation of God in human form, a belief that finds no counterpart in Zoroastrianism, Judaism, or Islam.
Fred M. Donner
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
1. In what ways do the concept of monotheism and the central belief in prophesy relate to one another?
2. This essay clearly explains each of the similarities between the monotheistic faiths within the Middle Eastern religious paradigm. However, there are stark differences between polytheism and monotheism—apart from the quantity of deities one worships. In particular, with regard to the degrees of difference in the areas of prophesy, revealed scripture and final judgment. Using what you know about polytheistic faiths, and inferring from reading the main essay, describe how polytheistic faiths would stand apart from the Middle Eastern religious paradigm concepts of prophesy, revealed scripture, and final judgment.
3. Donner explains the enormous growth of Christianity and Islam through their proselytizing character, whereas Judaism, and its smaller population of faithful, is non-proselytizing. Generally speaking, what challenges would/has each faith encounter(ed) through history as related to their proselytizing or non-proselytizing character?